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A strong, high-performance sales team is critical to a successful business. But what makes a sales team truly great, and what strategies can leaders use to create a team that's highly successful? To address these questions, we're talking to CROs and sales executives about "How To Turn a Good Sales Team into a Great One." As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Loni “Lilly” Ice.

Loni “Lilly” Ice

Loni “Lilly” Ice

Ms. Ice has run her own businesses for three decades, including enterprises as diverse as horse training to freelance copywriting. She has recently taken a position as the VP of Marketing and Sales for NoContractVoIP. Her hallmark as a writer has always been making complex subjects easy to understand.

Thank you for doing this with us! To start, can you tell us the 'backstory' about what brought you to this career path?

Of course! I’m the product of two military parents, and so always been a wanderer interested in what’s over the next horizon. I enjoy challenges and the pleasure of being self-reliant. So, naturally, I’ve always been fairly entrepreneurial.

I started riding horses when I was two, or so I’m told. As a teenager, I offered to ride and train other people’s horses who didn’t have the time. On the journey to adulthood, I found that the marketing and sales industry was in desperate need of writers who could communicate well. So, seeing as young horses haven’t become gentler but I also don’t bounce like I used to, I turned to sales and marketing instead.

I’ve found the study of humans endlessly fascinating, and hope to help people find solid solutions to their problems. I was offered the position at NoContractVoIP because while they’ve been in business for over thirty years, they had never before needed a marketing and sales department. It seems they finally decided it was time. 

Can you share the most interesting or amusing story that has occurred to you in your career so far? What was the lesson or takeaway? 

The most interesting story that has occurred in my career thus far in terms of sales is when I was first starting my freelance business, long ago, and trying to sell someone a branding and advertising package. The potential client sent me what they had so far, and with my writing education I ripped it apart. I was trying to show that I was competent, but really I just made the client angry at being critiqued. Lesson learned that time!

Are you working on any exciting projects now? Tell us about it!

Right now I’m working on a direct outreach campaign to provide phone service to construction and construction supply companies. Poor communications in construction can cause injury, overtime, and waste on a grand scale. I believe that creating and providing service for companies in the construction industry can help them streamline their operations, reducing frustration and improving their bottom line.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person you're grateful for who helped you?

My grandfather taught me sales. He was retired from his trucking industry by the time I knew him, but he kept his hand in helping run local election campaigns. He was very good at it, the person he backed on a local scale always succeeded. One of the things he insisted on from any candidate he backed was that they needed to go out, knock on doors, and actually talk to people. He taught them, and me, that the best way is always to forge a connection, listen to the their nuts and bolts issues, then solve those issues.  

Can you tell us a bit about your experience leading sales teams? How many years of experience do you have, and what size teams?

I have over 20 years of experience in sales overall, with about seven years experience leading sales teams. The largest sales team I worked with was approximately eight people while helping to run a non-profit. Working with a team is very different from doing it all on one’s own. I enjoy it, but I can see where the issues of coordination and communication can get frustrating to some people.

What do you think makes a sales team great? What strengths or characteristics do you try to cultivate?

Inspiration, accountability, and support make sales teams great. Everyone on the sales team needs to understand and believe in their product. That’s the inspiration part. If the sales person doesn’t believe in it, they can’t convince anyone else to believe in it either.

As for the accountability side, salespeople need numerical feedback. They need to know what their targets are, and how they’re doing soon enough to make course corrections. They need to know where they’re falling down in their sales cycle. As far as support, each member of a sales team needs to know they can bring problems up to get brainstorming and help, instead of fearing for their jobs.

I try to cultivate conviction, first and foremost. They have to know their product, and who their product helps. Second, I try to cultivate open communication. I’d much rather a team member feel comfortable coming to me to say hey, I’m falling down on overcoming objections, or I’m having trouble with lead generation, than panicking. I want confident, outgoing, happy sales people.

As with any department, there can be a lot of different strengths, weaknesses, and personalities. How do you manage such diversity on an individual basis? Is there such a thing as a blanket motivator?

I want to sit down with each member of the sales team individually to find out how they think. Some are very detail oriented, some are big picture types. Some are creatives with an awful sense of time, some need the support of creative people behind them but have their system down to an art. All of them are important pieces of the team. I never use the word “but”, I substitute “and” whenever giving feedback.

As far as motivation goes, nothing beats internal motivation. I want to discover what each person’s internal motivation is. Do they want to provide for their families? Do they want to “win”? Do they want to see relief spreading across a client’s face? Any blanket motivator that appeals to the whole team will also be a fairly low priority motivation. Money, for instance. We all want it, of course everyone wants it, but what they want the money for varies wildly and is more important.

What strategies have you tried to increase motivation, engagement, and productivity? We want to hear it all, the stranger, the better!

I make everyone who works with me a promise, first and foremost. That promise is that I want to see each one of them thrive. To that end, we’ll solve problems together, and I treat them like adults. I’ve never known micromanagement to work very well. Having that conversation seems to motivate sales people wonderfully.

I’ve tried morning unguided meditations, that didn’t work too well. The idea was sit and be for a few before starting.  People tend to focus on things worrying them outside of work, and it made them more stressed..

I also do little competitions with rewards, like a Halloween candy for every 25 cold calls done, or something on that scale for people who don’t eat candy. Making the reward small and fun works better, it makes it more like play and less like stress.  

I also ask my sales people to sit and think about the people they want to help for about ten minutes per day before starting their sales interactions for the day. Who are those people? How will my sales team help them? How will we make life better for those clients today?

I also ensure my sales teams take individual ownership of their clients. They don’t have to know everything about the company, but they should expect to be the entry touchpoint for clients they’ve established a relationship with. I want clients to say, “Go to Jane, she’ll take care of you,” to their referrals, so sales people must be available to help clients they’ve sold to.

Of all the strategies you've tried, which did you find to be most effective? Did this have a direct correlation to sales? 

Ongoing education about our product and the benefits of our offered solutions was hands down the most effective. We saw sales jumps of 70% to 300% during the time I was doing the weekly update and focus meetings. I also made time during these meetings for team members to ask questions of me or each other on their problem areas that were guaranteed safe from a career perspective..  

Can you tell us about a time that your sales team outperformed their targets? How high over did they go, and what was that like for everyone? 

One time, my sales team hit 400% over baseline from the previous year. It was wild for everyone, customer inquiries shot through the roof and we weren’t prepared for the volume of communication to shoot up so fast. It was fun, though, everyone was jazzed about it. It took some quick organizational thinking to get the inquiries answered well in a timely manner.  

The reason for the unique performance was the perfect timing of a particular ad that was published in the right venues. It got massive eyes on it, more than we expected.  Inbound sales was swamped, but it was great.

Great things often take time. What do you think is a realistic timeline to take a sales team from good to great? 

Taking a good sales team to great takes at least a year, and that’s based on the notion that they’ve already got all the support they need. Marketing has to be on their game, too. If all the externals are optimized, teaching people the “client first, and our solutions are awesome” mindset they need takes a little bit of time. After that comes the practice, the review, and the coaching so it’s all second nature.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five strategies that will help turn a good sales team into a great one?

1 .  Educate so that everyone knows the product inside and out. We sell business phone systems, which aren’t the easiest thing to understand. At our company, we have to be prepared for every sort of client, from the one who says “Just make the phones work!” to the one who asks, “So, what platform are you running on, is that compatible with static IP blocks from our local Internet provider, and can you provide ATAs for legacy analog phones?” (The answers are we will make your phones work, we run on Netsapiens, we’re compatible, and yes, we do.)

2 .  Everyone must know the benefits of what the company sells, not the features. Ensure they know the difference. What we sell at our company is highly technical. We can talk your ear off about the differences between Yealink and Avaya, but most people don’t care. What each phone can technically do is considered “features”. The benefits we offer are our clients never having to stress about their phones or their Internet connection again. That gets business people’s attention in a way that raving about router speed never will.

3 .  Do the research to know the perfect client. Ensure the sales team understands and empathizes with their perfect client. For instance, we aren’t looking for clients who know enough and are big enough to set up their own VoIP system with a barebones carrier.  We’re looking for small to medium business owners who have no desire at all to learn anything about tech. Our specialty is taking care of those people. When they call in, we know what they need and can provide it fast.

4 .  Get to know sales metrics and chart the sales cycle so team members can see their performance in real time. If your sales team doesn’t know how long their sales cycle is, how many leads it’s supposed to take to generate a prospect, how many prospects it’s supposed to take to generate a sale, and what their expected sales per month are, they will fail. Make sure you’re tracking those with sales reporting software using realistic goals and objectives that are transparent to the team.

5 . Find ways to make it fun. Salespeople need to be emotionally supported. Sales is tough because rejection is a huge part of it, and rejection is hard for people to take. Rejection becomes a lot easier with a supportive team to help laugh it off. So, find ways to make little games out of needed tasks like cold emails or cold calling. The stakes of the game should be fun but minor enough to not cause stress in and of themselves. Personally, I’m a chocolate fiend, so fun sized Snickers bars are my chosen treat for hitting outreach numbers, but that’s just me. Find out what the team would enjoy.

Sales reps, rejoice! No more cold calling dread. Discover software for more productive cold calls.

Lastly, if you could inspire a movement that would bring a great amount of good, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

I’d want to inspire a movement of people who think they’re against each other sitting down to talk about the nuts and bolts issues that matter most to them. I believe we all want “the good life” for ourselves and everyone else, too. Most people are basically good. Different people have different definitions of what that “good life” is, of course. But I think we’d find we have more in common if we focused on solving real problems in front of us rather than arguing about abstracts.

How can our readers further follow your work online? 

I write regularly on my LinkedIn profile and I write the blog for NoContractVoIP, feel free to check up there regularly!

Phil Gray
By Phil Gray

Philip Gray is the COO of Black and White Zebra and Founding Editor of The RevOps Team. A business renaissance man with his hands in many departmental pies, he is an advocate of centralized data management, holistic planning, and process automation. It's this love for data and all things revenue operations landed him the role as resident big brain for The RevOps Team.

With 10+ years of experience in leadership and operations in industries that include biotechnology, healthcare, logistics, and SaaS, he applies a considerable broad scope of experience in business that lets him see the big picture. An unapologetic buzzword apologist, you can often find him double clicking, drilling down, and unpacking all the things.